Alex’s current goal in life was to get the Super Powers Authority to authorise Fanini cards for Academy students. It was a great idea, genius idea really, that would make lots of money (for the SPA and for him) and showcase young and promising superhero talent (him, of course). He’d spent precious superhero training time making a display board with hand-coloured pie charts and even cut-out paper letters saying “RISING FANINIS”, but there hadn’t been any interest yet to Alex’s complete mystification. Alex was extremely good-looking and the most popular person at school, ok, second-most, maybe third-most, but he had dated the most popular girl at school and was the only ex Sarah was still friends with, so that made him Cool. (And Hot. Heh.) He and Sarah would be the perfect people to front Rising Faninis, and it’s bloody obvious that the SPA would be all over Sarah merchandise like a tween at a Total Heroes concert. It was so obvious even Simon could figure it out.
This week was Sidekick Experience Week, so Alex fully planned to convert whichever superhero came his way to the brilliantness of Rising Faninis. It’d be easy peasy.
Alex was the first person at the sidekick assignment board when classes ended. “Yes! I was assigned to Excelsor! How cool is that?”
“I thought you said everyone knew you were going to be assigned to Excelsor, because you were destined to be or some rot like that,” Sarah replied.
“You’re just mad because you were assigned to your mum,” Alex said. “He has a recognition factor of 94! He’s just twenty-five! He has every superpower ever! You know they said he turned down a higher recognition factor out of respect for older heroes?”
“I don’t believe that,” Don said, leaning against the wall. “There is no way a man that famous is that nice.”
“I think he sounds very nice,” Jenny said supportively.
Alex rolled his eyes. “Whatever, I’ll be the best sidekick ever, and then Excelsor and I will become a team and I’ll be the coolest cape around. I need to go write my introductory speech, bye!”
So their first meeting didn’t go as Alex had painstakingly scripted. They’d met on the school, and Alex had been so horrified by the idea of anyone smoking inside that he’d reflexively yelled, “You can’t smoke here!”
The man who had to be Excelsor snorted. “Don’t tell me what to do, kid.”
“I’m not a kid!” Alex protested vehemently. “I’m eighteen!” He tried to steer things back on track. “My name’s Alex. I’ll be your sidekick this month.” He stuck his hand out.
Instead of shaking his hand, Excelsor blew a cloud of smoke into his face, sending him into a coughing fit. “The name’s Devlin, but you can just call me Excelsor.” The man looked him up and down, unimpressed. “Remember to stay out of my way, and I’ll even give you an A*.”
He and Devlin were on first-name terms now. Alex counted that as a win.
As it turned out, most superheroes were on a first-name basis, since most of them had attended the Academy together or fought together. Alex tried not to be depressed by that. After Alex’s first day as a sidekick where he did menial rescue work that didn’t help his future recognition factor at all, Devlin had taken him to The Fortress and even bought him a drink. Sarah hadn’t even been in The Fortress yet, and Alex was looking forward to gloating come tomorrow morning. The downside, he was being ignored by Devlin and his group of friends, which he definitely wasn’t telling Sarah. Or Don. Or anyone, really.
“Hey kid,” Devlin shouted in his ear.
“What?” Alex raised his head from where he’d fallen asleep at the bar. He eyed his watch blearily; it was already one.
“I’m going home now,” Devlin said.
Alex looked up and stared at the other man. “Okay?” Devlin sighed impatiently and the next thing Alex knew, there was an ice cube sliding down his nape. “Ow!”
“Now that you’re awake,” Devlin said, “are you coming home with me or not?”
Devlin made an impatient huff. “I don’t want to have to pick you up in the morning, so you’re staying at my place. Unless you’re too afraid of your parents to stay out, of course.”
“No way,” Alex replied emphatically. “Besides, my parents are dead.”
“Orphan backstory,” Devlin said. “Brilliant.”
Alex lit up. “Really?”
Devlin glared. “No.”
That was how Alex found himself at Devlin’s flat. There were Excelsor collectibles everywhere and a stylishly stark gold, white, and black painting of Excelsor in action over the entire wall. “That’s really cool,” Alex said, pointing at the wall.
Devlin smiled smugly. “First thing I got when I got this flat. To remind myself everyday that I’ve made it.”
“Wow,” Alex breathed. That was going in Alex’s notebook: The Superhero Way, Rule 1.
“Go to sleep,” Devlin ordered. “A sidekick falling asleep in the middle of a mission would look bad on my quarterly report.”
Alex looked around the flat. “Where am I sleeping?”
Devlin rolled his eyes. “I don’t know? Maybe oh, the couch? Or if that’s too difficult for you, you could sleep on the floor.”
Alex slept on the couch the first night, but as it turned out expensive designer couches were still awful to sleep in. He’d spent so much time complaining about neck pains the next day that Devlin forced him into Selfridges to buy a mattress. Alex had protested the cost, but Devlin pointed out that he wouldn’t be caught photographed in Ikea and that he was expensing it. Alex wondered if this was the sort of thing that sidekick taxes went towards. That was going in the notebook, too.
The next day Alex did more menial sidekick tasks, that is to say, absolutely nothing. He could still put it on his CV as “standing guard” or “protecting EXCELSOR!!!” since it was true, more or less. In the afternoon, Devlin took him to The Fortress again. Alex was getting recognised now and women are giving him drinks (way cool) to give to Devlin (Excelsor’s wingman, still cool).
At around eleven, Devlin cornered him with strict instructions. “Don’t go back to my flat.”
“I thought you didn’t want to have to pick me up?” Alex questioned with confusion.
“Yes, you idiot,” Devlin said, shoving him against the booth. “I’m going home with a girl. A kid like you wouldn’t know what to do with a girl, okay?”
“I know what to do with a girl!” Alex yelled. Half the people in the bar turned to look at him. Knowing his luck, it would get back to Sarah’s parents, and he’d be tossed around by Rampart. Again. (Cool only if he decided to become a supervillian, and he couldn’t, since then Sarah would come after him for ruining her origin story.)
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Devlin said. “I still expect you at my flat at six.”
Alex couldn’t go back to the halls, not after boasting about being invited to stay with Excelsor. He decided to sleep in a booth at The Fortress and set his watch for five-thirty. He arrived at Devlin’s flat at five to six, but Devlin didn’t even answer the doorbell until six-thirty. Prick.
Devlin took one look at him, and said, “Did you sleep on the street last night?”
“No?” Alex knew he didn’t look great after a night on a wooden pub bench, but he couldn’t look that terrible.
“Don’t tell me you don’t have anywhere to stay,” Devlin said. Alex wisely stayed silent. Devlin gave a glare, and said, “Here’s a key. If you ruin my sex life, I’m going to fail you right out of the Academy.”
“Thanks,” Alex muttered, reaching out hesitantly to take the proffered Excelsor keychain. He shoved it into his pocket.
That night, Alex couldn’t go to The Fortress with Devlin as he had to carefully pull and push his mattress into position on the floor behind the couch, somewhere visiting women wouldn’t be able to see him en route from the door to the bedroom and back to the door. When he was done he collapsed on the mattress and fell asleep immediately.
He still woke up that morning looking equally terrible as the previous, since Devlin and the unnamed woman had been extremely loud and enthusiastic throughout the night.
Devlin ran a hand through his hair, sighing. “The way this is going, it’d be easier if I just sleep with you.”
“I’ll do it,” Alex said immediately.
Devlin took a half-step away from him. “I was joking,” he said apprehensively. “Don’t tell me you’re gay.”
Alex squawked, “I’m not!”
Devlin looked him up and down. “That’s fine, then. Remember not to tell the SPA, and everyone will be happy.”
“Wait, you’re serious?”
“I need to have sex, you’re a warm body that happens to be staying at my flat,” Devlin said, gesturing between them. “Or are you saving it for someone special?”
So that happened. Devlin shoved him face-first into the mattress, prepped him roughly, and shoved in without any warning and came in five minutes. Alex didn’t even come. It was the worst sex Alex ever had, and that was including the time Sarah’s mum interrupted and literally kicked him out the second-floor window. Devlin pushed him out of the bed after, and Alex limped to the mattress and fell asleep on top of the covers.
He looked even worse the next morning. They had sex that night again.
Devlin had given Alex an A* on Sidekick Week, since he’d “stayed out of the way” as instructed, and Alex moved back into his dorm. Sarah spent hours and hours complaining about her Sidekick Week. According to her, she hadn’t been allowed to do anything and was only present for photo ops with her mum. The papers had, in fact, spent the entire past week covering Velvet Veil’s passing of the torch, which meant Alex’s week with Devlin was absolutely useless to his recognition factor. Jenny was busy alternately gushing over Norse Dave and sobbing over Take That’s break-up, while Don refused to talk about his Sidekick Week at all.
Alex received a mobile in the mail on Thursday. It was the cheapest Ericsson on the market, but still a mobile, and it came with a note that only said, “Show up”. Alex didn’t have anything better to do, so he decided to go. It was easy enough for him to sneak out of the halls as the Academy had barely any security for a superhero school and Sarah wasn’t his friend/ex for nothing. He arrived at Devlin’s flat at five past eleven.
“You’re late,” Devlin said, leaning against the door frame.
“You didn’t tell me what time,” Alex complained, manoeuvring past Devlin to enter the flat. “I have school tomorrow, you know.”
Devlin closed the door. “If you don’t want to show up, don’t. I don’t care.”
Alex couldn’t help himself. “Girl didn’t come home with you tonight?”
“Shut up and get on the bed.”
Sometimes Alex went to Devlin’s twice a week, sometimes he went twice a month. The headmaster called Alex into the office one afternoon to warn Alex about the drop in his grades, as if those would factor into his recognition factor at all. As a follow up, Sarah cornered him and demanded he tell her where he was going (friends/exes who can access CCTV feeds was definitely Not Cool). Alex bought it up with Devlin later that week, between orgasms and getting kicked out.
“Don’t tell your friends about me,” Devlin said, holding Alex’s wrists and pinning him to the bed. “I don’t want word getting out I’m sleeping with a man.”
“I won’t, all right?” Alex exclaimed. “I was just saying.” Devlin let go, and Alex rubbed at his now sore wrists. He didn’t care anyway; they weren’t dating and he wasn’t gay.
Alex didn’t say anything to Sarah, and Don was increasingly absent from school. Jenny teased him about his mystery girlfriend, and called him sweet for dating a normal and respecting her privacy. He decided to go with that story, for when the other students made fun of him for having an Excelsor keychain instead of a Helen Hydra one.
Alex graduated in the top 25% of the class, which was good enough for him. The four of them managed one photo together before Sarah’s parents finally overrode her stubbornness and dragged her away to network. As soon as they’d graduated, Sarah and Jenny became Ladytrouble and Don disappeared to do secret training, which left Alex alone and without a roommate. When he’d first started at the Academy, he had planned to move in with his girlfriend/future wife on graduation, but that dream had been beaten down and thoroughly electrocuted until it was left twitching in a dungeon in Sarah’s basement. Alex was realising he could have planned his life as a superhero better, because he didn’t have any income either. He ended up staying at The Fortress for a while but didn’t tell anyone about it, except for Dave who simply shook his head and gave him a thin blanket. Sometimes, he’d spend nights at Devlin’s. He wasn’t quite sure when he moved in with Devlin by default.
“Got something for you today,” Devlin said, a few months into their arrangement, and telekinetically slid a card across the kitchen island towards Alex.
“It’s me!” Alex scrambled to pick up the card. “‘The Hotness. Power: General heat-based. Age: 19. Born: UK. Origin story: 3. Recognition factor: 3. Battle factor: 1.’”
“Not bad for your first card,” Devlin said, punching him lightly on the shoulder, with the same fist he’d used to punch a supervillian straight through the roof last week.
“Thanks,” Alex replied, the smile on his face so happy it almost hurt. They stayed silent for a moment, before Alex scratched his neck awkwardly and moved to put away the Fanini card in his small lockbox, along with the last keepsakes he had of his parents.
Devlin took his time that night; Alex was on the verge of begging when Devlin finally put his hand around Alex’s cock and made him come. Devlin came in Alex’s lax body, and it took a few minutes for Alex to be aware enough to pull the condom off Devlin and toss it into the bin. That was the first night Alex didn’t sleep on the floor.
Alex started to become more famous. Ladytrouble split up, and Sarah went off to America while Jenny decided to take a break from being a superhero. Don was incommunicado. Alex noticed their absence, in the quiet downtimes between supervillian crises, but being part of Excelsor’s team meant he was busy all the time. Devlin would give him every new Fanini card of The Hotness, and Alex put them all in his lockbox. His recognition factor rose to 8.
Women bought him drinks now. It was flattering, but Alex turned down all offers to sleep with him. He didn’t have anywhere to take women, and Devlin spent more nights at home than not. Alex had time, and he could be hard to get.
Alex was captured by Nitrobomb just before he turned twenty. He spent two weeks at The Stronghold. He didn’t remember most of it.
He woke up at the hospital, Jenny sitting by his bed. He asked if anyone else had been to see him, and she looked a bit sad as she shook her head and told him no. Sarah arrived the next day, saying, “I’ve quit UCA. They’re a bunch of tossers anyway.”
“You can’t just quit the United Capes of America,” Alex yelled, and then yelped in pain when he pulled the stitches in his chest.
“I just did,” Sarah said, and Alex tried very hard not to stare down her shirt.
Jenny and Sarah visited him every day, and argued so much the nurses forcibly removed them every other day. Devlin didn’t come at all. After a few days, Alex asked to use a phone, and a nurse wheeled him to the reception. When no one picked up, he pretended to have a conversation with the voicemail message just so he wouldn’t look too pathetic.
It took him six weeks to leave the hospital. Sarah suggested they go to The Fortress to celebrate, but Alex didn’t think he wanted to see Devlin there or have Devlin ignore him. Alex went home instead, after taking half an hour to convince Jenny that he really didn’t need a superhero escort home.
Devlin was there, sprawled on the couch watching Mighty Force repeats. Alex checked the costumes—it was the 1986 series.
“Hi,” Alex said. Devlin turned the telly off, and threw the remote on to the table. It slid across the glass surface, over the edge, and landed in the throw rug. Alex stared at it; Devlin never threw things, things Devlin had thrown never fell.
“You should quit,” Devlin said.
Alex stared at him in confusion. “Quit what?”
“You should get out of the business,” Devlin replied, looking completely disinterested. “You’re not cut out for it.”
Alex could feel his palms heating up. “Pardon?”
Devlin scoffed. “Couldn’t even defend yourself against Nitrobomb? Isn’t heat supposed to be Nitrobomb’s weakness? Come on.”
“We’re a team together,” Alex shouted indignantly, “you should be helping me recover from trauma or whatever!”
“You’re an idiot,” Devlin said, getting up to step closer to Alex. “This team you’re in is Team Excelsor. When I say you’re out, you’re out.”
Alex stared at Devlin in disbelief. “God, I thought you’d be nicer to someone who went through the same shit your parents did. Thanks for nothing.”
Devlin’s eyes narrowed. “Get out. Get the fuck out.”
Alex knew how to deal with a mean Devlin, but not one who was like this. So he grabbed his lockbox and a few meagre possessions, threw his Excelsor keychain in Devlin’s face, and stormed out.
“If you don’t quit being a superhero I’ll make you quit!” Devlin shouted at his back. Alex slammed the door.
Alex moved in with Jenny, because it was the least of all possible evils. Jenny thought he’d broken up with the normal girl he’d been going out with since the Academy, and Alex didn’t bother correcting her. It wasn’t like he had any relationships during that time. Movers arrived with the rest of Alex’s things, that he’d left at Devlin’s. There wasn’t even anywhere to put the mattress, the prick.
Devlin was true to his word. Alex couldn’t find a single decent mission, never mind a team. Every scene he showed up to, Devlin and his team of sycophants would be there first. Alex decided to try outside of Britain, but UCA didn’t even send him for callbacks.
Don returned that winter, looking haunted and worn, and Jenny made them all go to The Fortress to throw him a welcome back, cheer up party. When Alex walked in, he immediately saw Devlin in the centre of a crowd of people, playing at a pinball machine Alex had never seen before. Alex walked to the furthest booth from Devlin, the one he used to sleep in, and hid himself the corner. Unfortunately, Sarah forced him to get drinks.
“Could I get a round of ale, please?” Alex said, trying to be as unnoticeable as possible. Dave was filling the third glass, when Alex felt someone come to stand beside him.
“Hey,” said the voice Alex immediately recognised as Devlin’s. With a sinking feeling, Alex turned around to see Devlin leaning on the bar beside him. “Seen your latest card? Recognition factor: –6.” His cronies laughed.
Only supervillians were supposed to have cronies, but Alex made an exception for Devlin.
Alex sighed. “Go away, Devlin.”
Devlin and his cronies exited the pub to fight the supervillian of the day, but not before getting a few more jibes in. He’d left the card on the bar, and Alex slipped it into his trousers and tried not to burn the drinks. It would go in the lockbox, along with everything else.